Most Soybean Producers Already Implementing Sustainable Practices

ISA says it will be crucial to document sustainable practices to ensure market access in some countries.

Published on: Nov 11, 2011

Sustainable production practices have become so important to today's marketers and overseas buyers that sustainability certification standards are starting to knock on the soybean farm gate.

Most soybean farmers have been reducing their environmental impact for years and are well on the road to compliance, but the reporting requirements are raising questions. The Illinois soybean checkoff is working to help farmers understand what's happening with emerging certification requirements. Because soybeans are used in so many ways, certification can protect market access to a number of industries, says Ron Moore, Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) director and vice chair of sustainability.

"Sustainability practices are already in place on most Illinois farms," says Moore, who farms near Roseville. "Reduced tillage, reduced pesticide use, water conservation, soil quality improvement and other practices defined as 'sustainable' in today's lingo are decisions growers have been making long before being green was trendy. These practices improve their efficiency and boost profitability while meeting market expectations at the same time."

The biggest challenge of emerging sustainability certifications will be documentation, Moore explains. "Farmers are already doing an overwhelming majority of what a sustainability certification would require; they're just not necessarily documenting it right now." While the documentation may be somewhat like the "identity preserved" soybean production reporting some growers have experience with, Moore says IP records are merely the tip of the iceberg.

As a global agribusiness, Illinois ADM closely watches the demands of the international supply chain. To gauge how soybean farmers would perceive a sustainability certification, ADM recently circulated a draft International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) to a small group of Illinois producers. ADM's certification exploration came in response to emerging requirements by the European Union that only "sustainably produced" soybeans can be used to produce biodiesel in Europe.

For example, importers, processors, and feed compounder groups in the Netherlands (the largest importers in the EU) have committed to only source sustainable soy beginning in 2015. ISA has learned ADM was merely seeing how producers would feel about certification, and there are no ADM plans to move the idea forward at this time.

But the certification raised questions among soybean farmers and several farm organizations. In this case the "sustainable methods" the ISCC was evaluating were partly geared toward EU concerns about South American land-use issues that don't apply to the U.S. For example, the certification places emphasis on ensuring crops are not grown on previously undisturbed native forest land and grasslands. Most U.S. soybean famers have no trouble documenting that their crop was not planted into forests or grasslands. But having to do so is still a new idea for farmers.

Other industries have been dealing with this sort of issue for years, Moore says. The retail foods and consumer goods markets have already had to adapt to sustainability certification standards. In 2009 Walmart began requiring each of its more than 100,000 global suppliers to evaluate their current practices and identify additional sustainability opportunities. Walmart is also a major supporter of product life-cycle management. Under the product life-cycle management concept every step of a product's manufacture is managed in ways that will decrease environmental footprints and make value chains more sustainable.

The Walmart and ADM examples are just some of the first instances of emerging standards Illinois farmers will face in order to maintain customer demand and access to global markets, notes Moore. "What this means for farmers is that the sustainable methods used to produce soybeans are becoming just as important as the quality of the soybean itself," he says.

As the foundation of many food and material supply chains, soybean producers and their production practices will eventually be scrutinized by the entire supply chain, Moore predicts. He adds that by adopting sustainable agricultural practices, Illinois farmers can help processors, manufacturers and distributors meet stringent sustainability requirements from the ground up, giving U.S. producers a strategic advantage over foreign competitors.

ISA is working to help Illinois farmers continue to lead in responding to impending sustainability standards. "One of the most important things ISA is doing is informing our customers about all the sustainable management practices soybean farmers are already doing," says Moore. He adds that ensuring Illinois soybean farmers get proper credit for their existing sustainable practices is key.